This article by Carol Otis Hurst first appeared in Teaching K-8 Magazine.
This month, let's take one area of the country and investigate it through literature. Although the Appalachian Mountains extend from Maine to northern Georgia, the area typically referred to as Appalachia is only that part of the mountainous area of our country, which extends from southwestern Pennsylvania to Georgia. The area is rich is folklore and has been the setting and inspiration for many good books for young people. With upper grade students we can approach our study geographically, economically, sociologically historically and, of course, through the literature from and about the area.
Webbing is a technique often used in the classroom because it is a graphic means of outlining and of organizing brainstorming results. Creating a web together encourages divergent thinking and can draw in students who might have thought the topic had little interest for them. Later, students stuck for a topic for writing, investigation or discussion may find inspiration by examining the web. Such a web of Appalachia might start out looking like this:
As students discover and read some of the literature, they can add the titles to the web.
Chart of Books on Appalachia
When the web ceases to be of use, replace it with something more useful such as a time line or chart. To facillitate finding and using the related literature this large chart of books on Appalachia may be useful.
As with the study of any area, students should not be left with the idea that the area, in this case Appalachia, is a museum frozen in time for our viewing purposes. Also, although much of Appalachia is still economically depressed, it is important that students not go away from the study convinced that the entire mountain area is impoverished or that everybody there makes their living in the coal mines.
Keeping that possibility for stereotyping in mind, a good book to start the study is Appalachia: Voices of the Sleeping Birds by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Barry Moser (Harcourt, 1991. ISBN 0 15 201605 8). The author starts with the dogs who run free for the most part in Appalachia and goes from them to their owners and to the houses they live in. The people she talks about are mostly coal miners and live in company housing although she brings in the people who leave the area for a while to become doctors or lawyers and such but who usually come back. The book is told with obvious affection for the place and the people. Moser's illustrations resemble a photograph album and the affection is apparent there as well.
The book should open up some discussion first from people who know the area. How accurate is the book? How does it jibe with previous information? How do the author/illustrator know so much about the area? The blurb on the book jacket gives some information in that direction. Also, Cynthia Rylant has written two brief autobiographies: Best Wishes (Richard C. Owen, 1992 ISBN 01 878450 20 4). This book is short and easy to read. There are many photographs of the author in her present and in her Appalachian home. A slightly more difficult autobiography by Cynthia Rylant is her But I'll Be Back Again (Orchard, 1989 ISBN 0 531 08406 X). The latter book should interest older students because of its frequent references to the Beatles and because the roots of most of the rest of her writing are clearly defined.
After reading Appalachia: Voices of the Sleeping Birds, some students may be ready to go directly to non fiction sources for further information. Be sure they consult the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature for the area is often the subject of magazine articles.
Don't forget the Native Americans! They were there first and many of them were annihilated or moved. It's time to look at the Indian Removal Act and the numerous treaties that were signed and broken in the battle for ownership of the mountains. It's time to look at books such as Only the Names Remain: The Cherokees and the Trail of Tears by Alex Bealer (Little, 1972 ISBN 0 316 08520 0).
Others may want to head for the novels. If you can hold them back a little bit and suggest that they peruse on their own one of the following picture books, they will usually enjoy them.
Rylant's first picture book was When I Was Young in the Mountains, illustrated by Diane Goode (Dutton, 1982 ISBN 0 525 44198 0). It describes the time in the author's childhood when she lived with her grandparents in the mountains. The book is a hymn of praise to the simple life. The illustrations caused the book to become an honor book for the Caldecott Award, but Cynthia Rylant didn't like them. She said they made everybody look too neat and tidy and not as she remembered them.
For her next book about the same area, she chose the illustrator: Stephen Gammell. Gammell certainly knows how to draw messy people and their book is the next suggested reading for students finding out about Appalachia: The Relatives Came (Bradbury, 1985. ISBN 0 02 777220 9). It celebrates the extended family and is less a story than a pictorial and rather comic journal of their coming together. The relatives drive from their Virginia home to the house of their relatives far away but obviously still in the mountains. They hug and talk and eat and fix things for days and then they drive home, full of love and memories.
Another picture book to help build a feeling for Appalachia is Gloria Houston's My Great-Aunt Arizona with illustrations by Susan Lamb (Harper Collins, 1992 ISBN 0-06-022606-4). In this biographical picture book, Houston tells the story of her great aunt who, even as a little girl, had travel in her soul but never got out of the mountain community where she lived. However, she became a teacher and encouraged her students to go to the places she had visited "only in my mind".
Your students might like to know that Gloria Houston had, for a long time, attempted to turn Arizona's diaries into a biography or novel but was unable to do so although she had written several such books. (See Littlejim and The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree below). When Houston saw Barbara Cooney's picture book Miss Rumphius, she realized that the form her story should take was also that of a picture book. Students may be able to see similarities between those two beautiful books.
These picture books may help students get some feel for the values and lifestyle of some of the people of Appalachia.
Let's move on to the novels. It's at this point that individuals can and should pick the book they want to spend some real time with. There are so many good ones, your kids shouldn't have trouble finding the one they'd like to read first.
Trouble at the Mines by Doreen Rappaport and illustrated by Joan Sandin (Crowell, 1987 ISBN 0 690 0445 3) is a fictionalized version of a very real event: in 1898 in the coal mining town of Arnot, Pennsylvania, the coal miners went on strike. We see that life altering event through the eyes of Rosie Wilson, a young girl whose family is deeply involved in the strike. We also learn about the role Mother Jones played in that strike. The book is short and very easy to read.
A slightly more difficult novel on almost the subject of coal mining is Ruth White's Sweet Creek Holler (Farrar, Strauss 1988. ISBN 0-374-47375-7). Life in a coal mining town can be difficult under any circumstances but this family has it really rough. Their father, the coal miner and bread winner of the family, has been shot at the beginning of this novel and they've had to leave the Clancy Valley Coal Camp and move to Sweet Creek Holler. The story is set in 1948 and we get a close look at the tightly knit but sometimes narrow-minded citizens of western Virginia at the time.
Either or both of these last two books should lead students into the occupation of coal mining, the history of labor unions and, of course, the work of Mother Jones and, by extension, to that of John L. Lewis.
Two picture books that may help to flesh out the picture of coal mining life are Judith Hendershot and Thomas B. Allen's In Coal Country ( Knopf, 1987 ISBN 0 394 88190 7) and Michelle Dionetti and Anita Riggio's Coal Mine Peaches (Orchard, 1991 ISBN 0 531 05948 0).
Carolyn Reeder has used a different occupation as the basis of her novel Moonshiner's Son (Macmillan, 1993 ISBN 0 02 775805 2). Set in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains in the days of Prohibition, the story takes us to the lives of Tom Higgins and his father who has perfected the art of moonshining and considers it a time-honored profession. Mr. Higgins is a man with a deep sense of justice and honor. Their existence is directly threatened by the equally earnest actions of the new preacher's daughter, Amy, who is convinced that their moonshining is not only illegal, it's immoral. Violence ensues and injustice reigns for a while in this novel in which there are few blacks and whites but many greys.
We mustn't let the students get the impression that everybody in Appalachia is a coal miner or moonshiner, however. Lois Lowry's Rabble Starkey (Dell, 1987 ISBN 0 440 40056 2) is set in the fictional town of Highriver, West Virginia and Mr. Bigelow, one of the main characters is a real estate salesman. It's the personalities rather than the area that dominate this novel. Rabble is a wonderful and beautifully defined character as are most of the others in this sensitive book about love and mental illness and what makes a family a family.
Littlejim in Gloria Houston's book by that name, illustrated by Thomas B. Allen (Philomel, 1990 ISBN 0-399-2220-0) is trying to find out what it is to be a man and he's having a tough time of it. Although the time is World War I and there are references to it, it is not the focus of this brief novel. Littlejim's father and uncle have a lumber business which is thriving due to the war effort, but otherwise the Appalachian setting is peaceful. The drama concerns the attempts, often futile, of scholarly, talented Littlejim to earn his father's respect and love and his father is a man who is insensitive and often brutal.
Katherine Paterson has turned her sure writer's hand to Appalachia in her book Come Sing, Jimmy Jo (Dutton, 1985 0 525 67267 6). Jimmy Jo Johnson's family are country singers. As the story begins Jimmy Jo has been left behind with his grandmother in the mountains, being considered too young for the group. His grandmother was once part of the group but is now considered too old for the road. It is she who encourages Jimmy Jo to sing and, when he finally gets his chance, he outshines his father and mother and becomes the focal point of the group and the cause for their rise to "big time."
It's an easy step from that book to the subject of country music and to the folk music of the Appalachian Mountains.
Barry Moser used a traditional English Ballad for inspiration for Polly Vaughn (Little, 1992 ISBN 0-316-58541-6). He transplanted the ballad to Appalachia where he tells the story of the children of feuding families who fell in love and that led to tragedy. The illustrations are exquisite and, not only help to tell the story but give lots of information about the characters and their personalities.
We haven't even talked about all the folk songs we could sing from the area or the folk instruments we could make. And then there's the crafts. Look what you could do with quilting! There are so many good books on that subject that we could devote a whole column to those alone. Have fun in Appalachia!
Related Areas of Carol Hurst's Children's Literature Site
Related Areas on Other Web Sites
- PBS's site about Jean Ritchie and Appalachian music: